MKTO dominated both radio and the charts back in 2013 with their catchy pop songs ‘Thank You’ and Classic’, both of which were lifted off their self-titled debut album. That too hit the mark, going straight in at No.1 on the ARIA charts in February last year.
The boys have now got a new EP out to keep fans interested whilst they finish off work on their forthcoming sophomore record.
Recently in Australia for a whirlwind promotional visit, we sent Brad along to chat to Malcolm Kelley and Tony Oller over breakfast.
In between bites, they discussed the ‘Bad Girls’ EP, which one of their singles was written for One Direction, performing with Taylor Swift and if they’ve ever used their own lyrics as weapons of mass seduction.
Brad : Hey guys, I keep hearing that your new single ‘Bad Girls’ was like a puzzle to put together, so how do the pieces all fit?
Tony : It’s funny, there was a guitar lick that we had when we were doing the last record and we knew that it was really catchy. Once you find that starting piece, you build everything around it. That came in with bringing in horns, which we definitely wanted to add because we thought what Mark Ronson did with ‘Uptown Funk’ was really cool. You always want to stay consistent with what radio are playing, so that allowed us to bring in more of that soul to it. I think there were eight different versions of the song and it was non stop back and forth emails figuring out the right melodies and concepts. But we’re really happy with how it came out. It was a process, but that’s how any song is.
Brad : Whose idea was it to put live horns on it?
Malcolm : Well, we look up to Dr. Dre. (We laugh)
Tony : Honestly! He’s one of the few producers who uses real instruments and real kicks that give it way more pop. It’s come to the point now where you don’t really need to do all of that anymore, but we wanted to give it that vibe. I played saxophone in high school and we love soulful instruments like that. For this record, we definitely have a couple tracks that we wanted to add horns, orchestra… as many real instruments as we could.
Malcolm : We’re all about that kind of stuff because it makes it sound more full.
Brad : Now, I’ve heard that the record’s written.
Both : Yes!
Brad : So what happens next?
Malcolm : We’ve got the EP out now so we think that’s a good preview of what the record’s going to be like. Very diverse, more mature. We’ve taken everything we learnt from our first record and touring and implemented it. Hopefully we can get it out at the end of this year, but we’re still writing to this day so that we can make sure it’s perfect.
Malcolm : We’ve grown a lot, especially as writers. We’ve learnt a lot from our producers, watching them, and we’re trying to produce music as well. We’re always writing and playing with beats and melodies. Even if we’re not writing for us, we’re writing for someone else. We think it’s very important as artists to try to touch every genre of music we can. We don’t want to be stuck in one lane; we think this album represents that.
Brad : Normally when somebody says they’re writing for other people, it usually means ‘We’re giving you the stuff that we didn’t want’. (The boys laugh)
Tony : Or it can be a song that we pitched to someone and they didn’t want it, so we just kept it because we knew it was a good song. Ironically ‘God Only Knows’ was written for One Direction and it just didn’t work out but we both loved it so we decided to throw it on our record. In general, all you can do is write as much music – and the best music – that you can and hope that something clicks.
Brad : Do you always feel a pressure, even on a day off, that you have to be coming up with songs? (Malcolm nods in agreement) Do you ever get time to be like ‘I don’t want to have to think about writing a pop song right now’?
Tony : There’s really only a day or half a day of that and that might consist of playing video games or basketball or seeing our friends, but even when we go out we find ourselves going back to a piano. We don’t live together anymore so I might call up Malcolm and be like ‘Yo Malcolm, what are you doing? Do you want to come over and write?’ because we love doing it. That’s one of the things we’ve always enjoyed about it, we truly love the art of making music. Even when we have a day off, they’re spent making music.
Brad : Now I gotta ask about the ‘Bad Girls’ video. There’s quite a lot going on!
Tony : Yeah!
Brad : So what do you think makes a good video clip?
Tony : Well… I’ll tell you about a common video clip concept that we got for ‘Bad Girls’. They were just like ‘Hey, let’s go to a party and get drunk with all these bad girls’.
Malcolm : So predictable.
Tony : Hannah Lux Davis, who’s an incredible director, directed it and came up with the ‘Mad Max’ theme. We shot it where they shot ‘American Sniper’, which gave us a production value that we’ve never really had. In general with music videos, you want it to grasp people’s attention, but make sure it’s clever enough that it doesn’t have to follow each lyric. It should be entertaining, like a movie, and that’s what we try to do.
Brad : Is there room to be spontaneous when doing a video or is it all planned out?
Tony : Oh yeah, we added the ending!
Malcolm : We got to have a lot of fun with that, like we started playing with the doll and looking out the window making crazy faces. We got to go back to our acting roots.
Brad : Now, I know you’ve probably been asked about this a million times this week, but I’ve got to ask about you performing with Taylor Swift. (They were special guests on Swift’s 1989 World Tour, performing ‘Classic’ with her at Gillette Stadium in Boston last month.)
Tony : Go for it man! We love talking about that.
Brad : How long was there between getting the call to join her on stage and then performing with her?
Tony : Was it a week?
Malcolm : Yeah, man. We got the phone call whilst we were doing some other shows and we were like, ‘What??’ She’s a big fan of the song so we were like ‘whatever we gotta do, let’s go!’ We ended up flying to Boston and the next thing you know we’re on stage with her rehearsing the song. She was no nice, so warm and welcoming. We got to be a part of her team huddle before the show and we were thrilled to be a part of it.
Brad : Was there any part of you that was like ‘Well it’s great that you want us to do ‘Classic’ but we have this new single out…
Malcolm : (laughs) Definitely that was talked about too. We wanted to do ‘Bad Girls’ but it was whatever she wanted and she wanted us to do ‘Classic’ but she’s been tweeting us out since the show and showing us lots of love on her socials. People would ask questions about us, then click a certain link and ‘Bad Girls’ would pop up, so we were OK with that.
Tony : It’s one of those things… we’re still trying to get ‘Bad Girls’ out there. It was more appropriate to do ‘Classic’ because ‘Bad Girls’ would’ve maybe gotten a couple thousand people singing but it wouldn’t have been 60,000 people singing it like ‘Classic’.
Brad : How do Australian audiences compare to US audiences?
Malcolm : When we do shows out here, they’re a lot bigger. They show us so much more love. If you guys love something you’re going to play it and show support. We got that feeling immediately when we did our first tour (the ‘Thank You’ tour), which we never expected, so we love the fans over here.
Brad : I was listening to the EP and there’s a lyric in ‘Just Imagine It’ where you speak about people spending too much time on their iPhones and not communicating face to face… (Tony claps in acknowledgment)
Brad : But then there was a moment in your show last year where you asked everyone to raise their iPhones in the air…
Malcolm : (laughs) That was for the light!
Tony : We did that for ‘Heartbreak Holiday’. Of course, we always want to get people with lights for the lighting effect. The thing is, you can literally tell people that lyric (in ‘Just Imagine It’) and they still won’t understand it, we’re trying to say ‘put the phones down’! It kind of sucks when you go to a concert and… like when I was young we didn’t have phones. You enjoyed it and talked about it. That was the cool part about it! With this whole record, we have a new approach to certain things we didn’t really understand at first.
Brad : Generally, one of the key things about MKTO is that… most bands sing about hooking up and being in the club and, not that you guys haven’t done that… (The boys laugh)
Brad : But you have songs like ‘American Dreams’ where you do talk about more global themes, is that something we can look forward to on the next album?
Tony : Absolutely. Like ‘Just Imagine It’ hits really hard, there’s a line in there that goes… ‘there’s an untreated vet with a mental defect that’s about to get a Glock, that’s insane’. There have been a lot of innocent killings in the States especially. It’s something we see consistently on the news and it’s really unfortunate, because when you’re living in a world of this (points at iPhone) it can happen and go viral in a matter of seconds before anybody understands what happened or what went on. It’s so sad… at the end of the day we’re all one race, you know what I mean? We like to talk about stuff that helps people escape from whatever reality they don’t want to be in. If that’s an EP, which gives them a little time out or the record, where they can escape for an hour… If we can do that as musicians, that’s a good thing.
Brad : At the same time, you guys have always been honest about appreciating radio play and that you write to get radio play, does that ever get in the way of being creative?
Tony : Hmmm no, I think at the end of the day… we’ve been very fortunate to have radio support both in Australia and in the States. ‘Classic’ sold three million out in the States. We want to continue to make great radio music because that allows us to get to where we want. When we do our solo stuff, which we will in the future, that’s when we’ll…
Malcolm : Make music to make music.
Tony : We like making these kinds of melodies because, at the end of the day, that’s what pays the bills!
Brad : So where is the strangest place you’ve ever heard one of your songs?
Malcolm : Strangest place? I don’t know, just different countries like Malaysia where it’s a completely different language. Even when we come to Australia and New Zealand, it’s always crazy!
Tony : One of the first times we ever came here, we went to a bar in Bondi Beach and had a few beers and ‘Classic’ or ‘Thank You’ came on and we were all like ‘Yeah!’ That was really cool.
Brad : Have you, or someone who’s tried to hit on you, ever used the ‘I want to thrill you like Michael’ line from ‘Classic’?
Tony : No they haven’t! That’s a good line though.
Brad : Or have you ever been tempted to say to someone ‘You know what, I can’t be bothered thrilling you like Michael tonight, maybe just like Jermaine or Tito?’
Malcolm : (laughs) Awww man, I haven’t!
Brad : Now before I go, I always like to ask, ‘Have you ever edited your Wikipedia’?
Tony : Never edited, but I find it so fascinating that anyone can add to it because I find the weirdest stuff added to it randomly.
Brad : According to Wikipedia, you used to have a third member of the band?
Tony : Nope. I think a fan told me once ‘I’m in your band, I added myself to the Wikipedia’ and I was like ‘Oh!’
Malcolm : That’s dope. (Laughs)
Brad : Ok guys, last question, what’s the best thing about your job?
Tony : Making music with my best friend, travelling the world, touring.
Malcolm : Making music!
Tony : Yeah man, all of the above.
MKTO’s ‘Bad Girls’ EP is out now.